Nov 21, 2010

Theological thinkings

So this is going to be rather long, but here is the text of a recent theological essay take-home exam I completed as a part of my seminary studies. Thoughts are appreciated...though keep in mind that I am by no means 100% sure on anything I typed: this is basically my current theological ramblings (I will include citations at a later date):

1: Relationship between Scriptures, revelation, contextual awareness, and authority.
Since the first century on, there have been arguments about where Biblical Scripture came from, its role in shaping Christian belief, and its authority within historical and cultural context. Some say every single word is God-breathed, the Bible can be taken absolutely literally on all counts, it functions as both history and science books, and parts are confusing because the Holy Spirit simply has not yet revealed their true meaning. I would argue otherwise.

Scripture, when not understood in a strict, Biblicist sense, is designed to be something that reveals God to one aspect of his Creation. While it is not necessary that every single dot or letter be the direct hand-over-hand direction of God, this does not negate God being directly involved in the overall scope of the creation of Scripture. Think about someone about whom a biography is being written in their lifetime—that person will not direct the author’s hand in every single word or phrase penned (if this were the case, it would turn into an autobiography and must be approached differently). Rather, the person will certainly want to make sure the essence of their life and who they are comes through on the page. Platcher states that “the stories capture through narrative a person’s identity” (pp. 92) and this is what happens with Scripture. It was unnecessary for God to fully inspire each dot and tittle put down about him so long as the final document fulfills its function as “a unique witness to the sovereign grace of God at work in the history of Israel and above all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” (Migliori, pp. 50). In a sense, allowing room for human creativity in the creation of Scripture fits with the image of a God who wants his creations to co-create along with him. He revealed Scripture and as much of himself as was necessary for humankind to create a document that witnesses to His message of liberation.

Scripture is meant to serve as a witness, a testimony that points to the glory of God and directs his creation towards the liberating message of Jesus Christ. It is not meant as a history or science book. Indeed, Migliori says the “Bible is a witness, and at its center it attests the sovereign, liberating grace of God in Christ…Scripture witnesses to God’s world-transforming activity” (pp. 52). All throughout the book we find descriptions of God shaping and reforming the world so that His beloved children might find freedom in Him. The children of Israel were brought up out of Egypt and into their Promised Land that they might be in a wedded relationship with YHWH. Each person is given the opportunity of rescue from their figurative “Egypt” through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that we might find ultimate liberation from sin. Scripture, particularly the New Testament, is thus a symbol that stands in the middle between people and God and mediates exchange between a God who must be reminded of his promises and a creation that must be pointed towards ultimate liberation. We are not to take it literally as a science or history book—to do so not only defeats the purpose, but distracts readers from truly getting at the heart of the text. It is merely a way for us to indirectly access the logos, or complete idea, of a God who is so powerful that direct access would mean destruction. As an “authentic witness”, Scripture is that which “directs our attention to some other reality…The living Word of God is Jesus Christ and it is with him that we are brought into relationship by the witness of Scripture” (Migliori, 51). Migliori says it well:
“Beyond the dead letter of Biblicism, the uncritical assumptions of historicism, the narrowness of bourgeois privatism, and the detachments of aestheticism lies the real authority of Scripture in the life of the community of faith. Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible. Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and thus into new relationship with others and with the entire creation” (pp. 50)

Yet just because the Bible cannot be read as a historical or scientific document does not mean it loses face in the light of cultural context. When examining interpretive hermeneutics, it is foolish to deny that one’s interpretation is outside that person’s cultural context. To do so is to deny the Spirit creativity. Of course women interpret Scripture differently than men, just as a poor orphan will see aspects of the text that escape a rich business man—the Spirit reveals Gospel and Law to individuals as is fitting to their circumstance. At the same time, a person’s circumstance will make them exquisitely sensitive to particular aspects of Scripture. For example, “the experience of suffering and poverty provides an opportunity for understanding the message of the Bible that frequently remains hidden to those who insulate themselves from the suffering of others and from their own suffering” (Migliori, pp. 62). We must realize that God did not make cooky-cutter children and the Spirit is not going to reveal the exact same thing to each person. “We must remain open to the freedom of the Spirit who sheds new light on Scripture. The Spirit of God moves in surprising ways” (Migliori, pp. 61).

Does this rob Scripture of authority? Certainly not! It was authoritative upon original inscription and continues as such today. It is the applicability of Scripture to our daily life and the enduring message of the cross (despite the brilliance of humanity, we still need the Savior), that garners Scripture continuing authority. The same is true for the writings of Confucius or Mohammed—they are granted authority within their respective traditions partly because people still need the messages contained within. When humanity no longer needs the message of hope that Scripture provides, when the truths of God ceases to play out in our daily lives, when we no longer need a Savior—then the Bible will no longer be needed and will lose authority. The problem is that too many people approach the document as one meant to be taken absolutely literally and have abused its authority. Our task, according to Migliori, “is to develop a liberative understanding of the authority of Scripture” (pp.44). When the text is read as it is meant to be, a witness to the living Creator who desires ultimate communion with each of its creations, then no—authority is not diminished in light of contemporary context or challenges.

The make-up of God
So what is God? A four-word question that can send even the most well-versed theologian searching for the perfect four-letter word—“God” seems awfully hard to pin down. Answering “I am” when Moses asked for his name, God seems to deny definition. God is outside of definition because each definition we try to pin on him/her/it/whatever necessarily shoves this supreme entity into a box that is limited by the language with which we are attempting to posit our ideas. God seems to refute every single box we puny humans try to shove him into, preferring instead to remain undefined as that allows him freedom for work that is beyond our comprehension. Indeed, ancient Jewish iconography refused to create images of God because to do so would force us to consider God within the limits of our own imaginings (Jones, pp. 70). Yet humans, beings that like structure, need something a little more concrete. As we ponder theologically, we are necessarily always doing so in a context shaped by language, culture, institutions (political, educational, social), and a history that conditions how we see and experience things around us. Therefore, how we conceive of God is necessarily shaped by how and where we live. So here is my conception of God as influenced by my gender, cultural context, and linguistic background:
· God as I understand him/her/it, hereafter referred to as “him” for the sake of convention, is above gender. It has been the tradition for thousands of years to refer to God as male, and yet the Old Testament (which, notably, also frequently refers to God as male) makes it clear that God transcends gender. How? Language referencing God takes on both masculine and feminine characteristics (God as the husband of Israel, God as the mother eagle who shelters chicks under her wings). Genesis 1:27 says “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NIV). The mere fact that we reference God as “him” is a reflection of the patriarchal society humanity has lived within since Adam and Eve (Jones, pp. 68). Well, if God is above gender, why do we not say “it”? Human beings like categories. Have you ever noticed the discomfort someone often displays when they cannot figure out if another human is male or female? This division of entities based on gender pervades science (male and female animals), language (masculine vs. feminine nouns), and even how we reference inanimate objects that do not display any sort of gender categorization (cars are often “she”). It would be absurd to expect a society so obsessed with identifying the gender of something to not apply this to God. Matters were not helped that Jesus appeared as a man, constantly said things like “My Father in Heaven”, and then told people to say “our Father” when praying. Yet in initial creation, the image of God was both male and female together in communion. Moreover, “the model of God as Father, Lord, and King…justifies a system of domination that grounds and sustains social hierarchies (patriarchy, for one)” (Jones, pp. 49).
· God is that which nothing can be greater than. He is the “all in all”, the strength when we are weak, the rock of our salvation, orderer of chaos, the ultimate truth, life and love, etc. Recognizing that the preceding list of attributes is a list of symbols, here I must also point out that nothing innate exists about the words “God”, “Elohim”, “YHWH”, “Lord”, or any of the other words used to reference the Creator (a word which is in itself a symbol) that tells us anything about the ultimate nature of God. He is too powerful to access directly, so we use symbols and metaphorical language to approach that which we do not have the human capacity to describe within language. He is so holy, so pure, and so powerful that we may not even think to approach his essence without risking being destroyed or severely disfigured (e.g. Moses). So what is he? An ultimate good, pure, loving being that transcends human understanding. The preceding sentence may seem like a cop-out, but I am still not yet even sure that I understand what God is other than redemptive, loving, and all-powerful.
· God cannot be God without his creation. It is awfully hard for the God of the universe to be God of anything if nothing exists. We cannot talk about God as a rock of salvation if there is nothing to save. No ultimate truth exists if there is no truth to be proven. There is no holy of holies if there is no “of holies”. God cannot use the title “Lord” if there is nothing to lord over. Therefore, God is “creative” and complete in his “creation”. Without Creation, God simply is. With Creation, God can be the force of light, joy, hope, and peace as understood within much of Scripture. God is just as dependent on Creation for full expression of his “God-hood” as we are dependent on him for existence.
To believe in the God witnessed to by Scriptures and the Christian tradition is to fully come into being. If humans are created to be in communion with the Creator, then how can we be fully human if we deny that communion, deny the existence of the Creator, and do not allow ourselves to acknowledge the divine role we have in co-creating existence? To believe in God is to allow God to be fully God in our lives. It is to allow ourselves to express the nature in which we were created and to allow the Creator to fully express his nature through us. How exciting!

Point of creation, theological engagement with science, and theodicy
People have tried to figure out why they were created for almost as long as they have existed. I would posit that people were made to be in ultimate union with God and sin drove the dividing wedge between that ultimate purpose and reality post-Fall. Creation itself is the “play of God…a kind of free artistic expression whose origin must be sought ultimately in God’s good pleasure” (Migliori, pp. 112). It provides an avenue of interacting with the glory of God through expression of his true self-hood by offering a “mask” to directly experience God without risking annihilation. It is a place for God to fully express himself and meet his precious people in his unending creativity and glory in a very real, tangible way that will not destroy his precious ones. The Bible says that nature itself will cry out the glory of God if people remain silent. It cannot help but do so. At the same time, as discussed above, God cannot be God without creation. Through bringing order to cosmic chaos, God provided an avenue of expression for his glory and love. Are we the first creations? I do not know. There is nothing in the Bible that denies the possibility that worlds and universes existed before or concurrently with that of which we are currently aware. Yet talk of alternate universes brings up the question of science and theology.

No matter how much people within either camp would like to do so, to divorce science from theology is the mark of absolute absurdity and, in my humble opinion, stupidity. I happen to agree with Migliori that the “language of science and language of faith must be recognized in their distinctiveness; one should not be collapsed into the other. And the claim that only one of these languages is the voice of truth and alone provides access to reality is simply unfounded and arrogant” (pp. 114). Science should not try to upend theology, and vice versa. At the same time, to theologically ignore science would be the end of witnessing to the reason-minded—the secular world does not ignore the laws of evolution and physics, biological processes, or molecular mechanics and neither should theologians. Good theologians will attempt to provide a way to explain how God works through these processes, realizing that science might, just might, provide a way to explain how God works his will in the world. Science is a good tool for theologically interacting with the concerns of those who are attempting to explain “how” and “why” things happen the way they do. To deny science is to limit God, which is unacceptable.

Many find the concurrent existence of evil and an ultimately good God unacceptable. Yet when one considers that “God abides in loving communion that affirms difference and makes room for the other” (Migliori, pp 109) and how God “recognizes and respects the free activity of creatures and does not play the part of a tyrant” (Migliori, pp. 126), the existence of evil as an idea is not so troubling. The translation from idea to reality is when evil becomes troubling. Humankind is meant for ultimate communion with God, yet God is not one to force that communion on his free-willed creatures. To do so would deny free will. In order to have free will and the ability to choose a life in communion with God, however, there must be an opposite of ultimate good. We must have something to choose between—absolute human freedom is necessary in order to exercise true communion with the Almighty. Enter evil, stage left. As for where evil came from—does it matter? It exists. We cannot get rid of it. Indeed, “God has created a world of both birth and death, both rationality and contingency, both order and freedom, both risk and vulnerability. In such a world, challenge, struggle, and some forms of suffering belong to the very structure of life” (Migliori, pp. 119). As argued in another work, it would seem that Biblically speaking Christianity should be far less interested in where evil came from and more interested in what to do with its presentation in the world. Yet it would seem that evil originates in humankind’s abuse of its freewill (Migliori, pp. 122). Since an opposite exists, people have the option to and have chosen it. We work atrocities on one another that can never have been intended by God—just as He is creative so too are his creations.

I would argue evil in all of its forms is simply another mask for the glory of God, but not in the same sense as Creation--here I mean a mask as appropriation (God revealed through his opposite). Does God work evil for the sole purpose of revealing his glory? No. God does not work evil, but simply acknowledges evil that already exists and uses its outcomes to further his purpose of pointing people towards the divine; in being present as a co-sufferer, God displays his love for humanity. “Tyranny, injustice, social breakdown, war, and other evil events are not caused by God…Nevertheless God permits these events to occur and uses them to accomplish the divine purpose. God exercises sovereignty over evil by bringing good out of what by itself is only negative and destructive” (Migliori, pp. 122). Try saying this to someone in the middle of crisis, however, and the deliverer of this message is risking getting slapped.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. The best any of us can do is say “I think…because XYZ makes the most sense”—but we will never really know the answer until we are standing (or hovering or whatever) before the Most High and he chuckles and says “Oh my child.”

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